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Using Windows Vista’s Complete PC Backup - A Guide

A week ago, my hard drive started making an odd clicking noise, and, after a call to Dell support, it was clear the damn thing was going to die on me, fast. Dell sent me a new drive, free under my warranty, lickety-split, and last night my job was to move everything over to the new hard drive.

Since I run Windows Vista Ultimate, I can use the very nice Complete PC Backup feature to move my files over to the new hard drive, and I did. Overall, it worked out nicely. You can also use this feature if you bought a new bigger hard drive and want to move everything over to it.

Here’s how it goes:

1 - Complete PC Backup

First, you need to find the software. Typing “Complete PC Backup” into the Start Menu gets you nowhere, so you’ll have to hunt. You’ll either find what you want under Accessories > System Tools > Backup Status and Configuration or under Control Panel > Backup and Restore Center. However you do it, you’ll find a section for Complete PC Backup and a button to back up your PC now.

2 - Backing up PC

Do it. Select the right drive or drives, make sure you have free space on another hard drive or the patience to record a lot of DVDs, and get it going.

When you’re done, Turn off your computer and replace your hard drive however it is you do that. I’m not getting into it, but suffice to say, it’ll probably involve a screwdriver.

3 - Windows Vista setup

When you’ve installed the new hard drive, insert your Windows Vista Ultimate DVD and boot from it. You may need to hit a key during boot to boot from the DVD drive, but probably not. Since your hard drive is usually empty at this point, your PC will see nothing there and move on, choosing the DVD. Hit any key quickly to run setup, and you’re back in Windows Vista setup. Do not click to install Windows Vista.

Instead, click Repair Your Computer.

4 - System Recovery Center

Then, on the System Recovery Options screen, click Next. Yeah, I don’t understand why it’s blank, either. Maybe it has something to do with using a different hard drive.

5 - System Recovery Options

On the System Recovery Options screen, click Windows Complete PC Restore.

6 -Choose your backup

Now, magically, Vista setup has probably found your complete backup on the external or other hard drive you backed it up to. No, it didn’t bother checking before, but it should list it now. Make sure it’s the right backup (it’s got a timestamp that will be only a few hours old) and click Next.

7 - Confirmation screen

Click Finish on the confirmation screen.

8 - You sure, dude

Then click OK on the “Are you sure” box. Doing this does re-format your hard drive, but that is kind of the point, right?

9 - copying files

That’s really all you have to do. Wait around while it copies files.

10 - reboot

Reboot when finished and remove your Windows Vista DVD.

When your computer starts back up, if you followed the instructions right, you won’t be able to tell that anything has changed. Your computer will have the same desktop, same settings, same software installed, same everything. It’s seamless and almost perfect.


You may have to re-activate Windows Vista, and possibly other software (like Adobe’s Creative Suite) that gets freaked out by the new hard drive, thinking you are trying to pull some crap. I’ll cover the “fun” of Windows Vista re-activation in my next article.

11 - VHD

Another really, really cool thing: When you create the Complete PC Backup, Windows actually creates a Virtual HD file and restores from that. In theory, you should be able to load that Virtual HD in Virtual PC or VMWare and run your PC as a virtual machine. In fact, you may be able to do some cool Windows-inside-of-a-Mac stuff, but I’m no expert on that. Hang on to that file for as long as you can afford to (it’s a safety if anything goes wrong in the future, and play around with it.

Hope this was helpful. Happy backuping!

September 2nd, 2007 Posted by Nathan Weinberg | Vista, Windows | 6 comments

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  1. […] night, after I fixed a hard drive problem by moving my entire PC to a new hard drive, Windows Vista demanded to be re-activated; otherwise I would face a firing squad (or Reduced […]

    Pingback by Windows Vista Phone Activation: An Exercise In Extreme Rudeness » InsideMicrosoft » part of the Blog News Channel | September 2, 2007

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    Comment by Dov Sugarman | September 3, 2007

  3. Thanks for this I have 3 books on Vista and have searched all over the web looking for a step by step guide on performing a Windows RE recovery. This is the only one that I have found that actually spells out what you have to do. My previously crashed PC is now working because of the information you have provided.


    Comment by Alan Trent | October 20, 2007

  4. Why does this not work when upgrading to a larger hard drive?

    Comment by Matthew | October 23, 2007

  5. Alan: You have no idea how happy it makes me to hear that this information helped you out. I’m glad I wrote it up.

    Matthew: It should work. In fact, that’s one of the benefits, that you can upgrade to a larger drive and not have to reinstall anything. If it isn’t working, contact me using the link in the sidebar and we’ll figure out why.

    Comment by Nathan Weinberg | October 23, 2007

  6. Nathan,

    Thanks for taking the time to post this tutorial. I followed your instructions to upgrade the stock Seagate 120GB HD in my Dell e1705 to a 200GB Hitachi Travelstar 7k200. Everything worked perfectly. It was the easiest hard drive upgrade I’ve ever done.

    The only additional step I had to do was extend the main disk partition to fill out the rest of the new hard drive. After the restore, it was still set to the original 120GB size.

    Thanks again,
    Steve Chamberlin

    Comment by Steve Chamberlin | November 7, 2007

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